As hard as it is to believe, college basketball tips off in just a few weeks from now, with the "Champions Classic" getting things rolling on November 9th at Madison Square Garden.
And to get you ready for the season, Aaron Torres Online will be giving you 30 previews in the coming 30 days to get you ready for the start of the year, all written by college basketball nut and recruiting guru Jacob Polacheck.
We are smack dab in the midst of these previews, with thoughts on Indiana, USC, LSU, Maryland Saint Bonaventure, Colorado State, and earlier this week, we got an exclusive sit down with Bruce Pearl to preview the Auburn Tigers.
Now e take a look at Virginia, which lost a ton off last year's team. But if we've learned one thing about Tony Bennett, he'll have him in contention in the ACC:
How it went down in 2020-21
If there’s one thing you’ve heard over and over about Tony Bennett and the Virginia Cavaliers, it’s defense. And if you look at the numbers, last season was much the same. Its 60.5 points allowed per game ranked No. 6 in Division 1, en route to a 17-6 (13-4 ACC) regular season record and the program’s fifth regular season championship in eight seasons.
Marquette transfer forward Sam Hauser led the way for the Cavaliers last year, leading the team in points (16.0), finishing second in rebounds (6.8) and third in assists (1.8). He was aided by the help of senior forward Jay Huff, who was second in team scoring at 13.0 points, while also leading the team in rebounds at 7.1 per game. The team also got added contributions from Rice transfer Trey Murphy (11.3 points and 3.4 rebounds), junior guard Kihei Clark (9.5 points and team-high 4.5 assists) and Reece Beekman (4.7 points and 3.0 assists).
Still after finishing just No. 36 in the nation in adjusted defensive rating, the Cavaliers were not as defensively dominant as in recent years, leaving them exposed come postseason time. Entering the ACC Tournament as the No. 1 seed, Virginia narrowly slid past Syracuse 72-69 before having to withdraw from the conference tournament due to a COVID-19 positive test.
And unfortunately for Virginia, that Covid positive slowed the team's trip to the NCAA Tournament. For safety precautions they arrived just a day before their tourney opener, and as a
a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament, was tasked with slowing down No. 13 seed Ohio led by guard Jason Preston. While Tony Bennett’s squad was able to hold Preston to just 11 points, he was still able to pick up a double-double with 13 rebounds and nearly came away with a triple-double, dishing out eight assists. UVA kept it close, but ultimately were sent home with a 62-58 loss.
What You Need to Know About 2021-2022
Key Returnees: Kihei Clark, Reece Beekman, Kadin Shedrick, Kody Stattmann
Key Losses: Trey Murphy, Sam Hauser, Jay Huff, Tomas Woldetensae
Key Transfers: Armaan Franklin, Jayden Gardner (East Carolina)
Key Recruits: Taine Murray, Igor Milicic Jr.
Following the team’s first round exit, Bennett and his staff went to work. After losing Trey Murphy (Pro), Sam Hauser (Pro), Jay Huff (Pro) and Tomas Woldetensae (Graduation), Virginia was able to add a couple key transfers in Indiana guard Armaan Franklin and East Carolina All-AAC selection Jayden Gardner.
However, it wasn’t only the transfer portal where UVA found success. The Cavaliers also picked up a commitment from Top-75 guard Taine Murray out of New Zealand and Croatian forward Igor Milicic Jr.
The new additions, combined with the returns of Kihei Clark, Reece Beekman, Kadin Shedrick and Kody Stattman, make Virginia a contender to take home the program’s sixth ACC championship in nine years.
Shedrick is expected to fill the void left by Huff with 7-foot center Francisco Caffaro adding some support off the bench. Despite the loss of Murphy, Franklin, Stattman, Milicic and Murray will look to add depth to the backcourt and wing positions.
While this year’s UVA roster may not be as exciting as in year’s past, they should be a very competitive team with some important pieces returning and some key transfers and recruits filling the roles of those who left.
As always, the ACC should be a juggernaut with Duke, North Carolina and Florida State all expected to be Top-25 teams.
The Cavaliers open with a strong non-conference schedule, starting with matchups against Navy (Nov. 9) and Radford (Nov. 12), before a key matchup with Houston on Nov. 16, a squad which obviously made the Final Four just a season ago. After a Nov. 19 tune up game against Coppin State, UVA will face off with Georgia on Nov. 22 in the Legends Classic in Newark, NJ before facing either Northwestern or Providence on Nov. 23.
The conference schedule doesn’t get any easier with Iowa (Nov. 29) in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, followed by the conference opener against Pitt in early December and Pitt (Dec. 3). The back-half of the non-con is highlighted by a game against James Madison, which won its regular season title a year ago.
Conference play opens in earnest with Clemson on Dec. 22 and Jan. 4 with a New Year’s Day matchup against Syracuse sandwiched in between. From there, the Cavaliers will face a difficult stretch of games with North Carolina (Jan. 8), Virginia Tech (Jan. 12), Wake Forest (Jan. 15) and Pitt (Jan. 19). The schedule doesn’t get any easier from there, with a three-game stretch of NC State (Jan. 22), Louisville (Jan. 24) and Notre Dame (Jan. 29) to wrap up the month of January.
Feb. 1 and Feb. 5 games against Boston College and Miami should help prepare UVA for perhaps its toughest contest of the season, traveling to Durham to face Duke on Feb. 7. The Cavaliers will match up with Georgia Tech (Feb. 12), Virginia Tech (Feb. 14) and Miami (Feb. 19) before getting the Blue Devils on their home court for another matchup with Duke on Feb. 23. The Cavaliers will wrap up its regular season with difficult contests against Florida State (Feb. 26) and Louisville (March 5) before the 2022 ACC Tournament from March 8-12 in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.
From a 30,000 view, the ACC offices did appear to do the Cavaliers favors with just one game each against North Carolina and Florida State, likely NCAA Tournament teams. They will get Duke twice in the final few weeks of the season however.
What to Expect in 2021-2022
Expect Virginia to fall back into its status as a defensive juggernaut, having the ability to play a multitude of defensive standouts, while putting newcomers in a situation with ample playing time.
This year’s UVA team will be led by returnees Kihei Clark and Reece Beekman, but will also need instant contributions from transfers Armaan Franklin and Jayden Gardner in order to compete in a loaded ACC conference. The losses of Murphy, Hauser and Huff won’t be easy to overcome, but if anyone can put it together, it’s Tony Bennett.
Virginia was one of the best defensive teams in the country from 2014-20 and even last season was a stellar defensive year by any other team’s standards.
Expect that to continue, but it will take someone stepping up to carry the scoring load in order for this team to make another ACC title run, and the high seed in the NCAA Tournament that fans have grown accustomed to.
For more college hoops coverage, make sure to follow Jacob Polacheck on Twitter @JacobPolacheck
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